Best in Show

I don’t particularly like dogs, at least not as a species. Some of them are perfectly lovely creatures I’m happy to share space with on an as-needed basis; others are sources of anything ranging from annoyance to terror.

So it wasn’t the dogs that got me into the Westminster Dog Show the other day, not exactly. I was on the treadmill at the gym, which is where I watch things I normally wouldn’t, like the news, or CSI, or the Westminster Dog Show. It was basically the only thing on that had nothing to do with Rick Santorum (shudder!) or sports (men throwing things at other things, why do I care?), so the kennel club it was.

I wound up enjoying it from a sort of removed, absurdist standpoint, made all the easier by the fact that I was watching the toy dog competition. I know next to nothing about dogs, and certainly know even less about toy dogs.

For those of you who are as clueless about dogs as I was a mere eight hours ago: Toy dogs aren’t actually toys, they’re live, just very very small.
Most looked like extravagant motorized dust ruffles to me. But of course, it’s not the dust ruffles that intrigue me; it’s the handlers behind them.

Showing animals is peculiar, sartorially speaking: You have to be dressed spiffily enough to pay proper homage to the event (teenagers showing sows at 4-H shows will put on their best cowboy boots), but comfortably enough to run, jump, chase, and otherwise wrangle potentially unpredictable creatures. You don’t dress to complement yourself; you’re dressing to complement your charge: “I never want to blend in with my dog,” says a handler in this article, which also advises dressing to distract from dogs’ flaws if necessary—the canine equivalent of wearing vertical stripes, I suppose?

In some ways it’s no different than the boardroom, if, in the boardroom, one were expected to frequently bend over and kneel, and to have liver in one’s pocket to keep a senior executive in line. The result is that the conservative look required can easily devolve into frumpiness—a fact not escaped by the Facebook group Dog Show Fashion Police, which has more than 17,000 “likes.” Shoes in particular stood out to me: Not a single woman handler was wearing heels. There may be a regulation about this, actually, in order to protect the flooring (does anyone know?). You mostly only see handlers from the knee down, and it’s rare to see images of women’s legs without them ending in either sky-high stilettos or a perfectly pedicured toe. Nothing like that here—just one pair of legs after another, revealed so matter-of-factly as to make us barely register them as women’s legs, de-eroticized as they were.

Reading the close-captioned narration onscreen cracked me up at first, these traits the announcers were attributing to dogs—docility, hospitality, even luxury-loving, all with a distinct emphasis on their impeccable breeding and their place in the social order of onceuponatime. (They didn’t need to spell out the connection of dog breeding to modern-day class systems; that part was clear.) But as I watched pair after pair of flats-clad human legs scurry alongside these moving dust ruffles, it struck me what a role reversal dogs shows are for female handlers. Here you have women displaying something to be judged on its looks, genetics, and breeding, and it is not her. She holds the dog out as an offering; we look at the floor-length hair of the Pekingese, the bouffant (hairdo?) of the shih tzu, the perfectly manicured puffs of the toy poodle, and we literally judge the animal based solely on how it appears to us. The words used to describe the dogs—affable, trusting, companionable, lively—also happen to read as a checklist of traits for the ideal woman. The dog receives the burden of absorbing the attitudes we normally direct toward women, leaving the handler oddly free to trot alongside her charge. For once, she is neither being judged nor judging. For once, she is an active participant without being looked at, and without the wallflower’s shame; she must be a wallflower in order to let the canine star shine.

I’m afraid this reads a bit like parody, the idea of the Westminster Kennel Club as fertile ground for an act of feminist visibility, and I admit it’s a little ridiculous. (Though if there’s a strain of radical feminist dog handlers out there reading this, please do let me know.) But when the narrators are saying things that we so blatantly reserve for women, how could my thoughts not wander in that direction? At one point an announcer unblinkingly proclaimed about a certain breed, “It’s not just hair and glitz—they’re actually really pretty.” Even dogs are being judged as either glamorous or “natural” beauties; as leaning on the artifice of hair and glitz or being genetically gifted enough to be “really pretty.” And given that women are compared to so many animals anyway—we’re kittenish, or have birdlike appetites; we’re foxy little vixens, unless we’re heifers or, well, dogs—suddenly it doesn’t seem terrifically far-fetched to wonder if there’s a bit of relief in establishing oneself as the mistress of another who is definitively there to be judged. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but perhaps they’re also woman’s best diversion.